Maine Medical Center plans to expand the hospital’s footprint by about 25 percent, including a 270,000-square-foot building along Congress Street that would serve as the main entrance. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Maine Medical Center’s request for a special zoning designation covering surrounding neighborhoods in Portland’s West End has prompted concerns among neighbors about the hospital’s long-term development plans.

The hospital’s request for an “Institutional Overlay Zone,” a crucial step in the hospital’s proposed $512 million expansion plan, will go before the City Council on Monday night. Representatives from the Libbytown and St. John and Valley street neighborhood associations are expected to express concerns, including how the hospital’s long-range plans might affect housing and other development in the area.

The expansion plan calls for increasing the footprint of the hospital’s main campus by about 25 percent and adding 19 new operating rooms and 128 single-occupancy patient rooms. The cornerstone would be a 270,000-square-foot building along Congress Street that would serve as the hospital’s main entrance and include 64 inpatient beds and the operating rooms, replacing an existing parking garage.

But it’s the hospital’s long-term plans, which could include expanding Maine Med’s footprint by adding medical offices on surrounding streets, that have become a growing point of contention.

In September, the state approved Maine Med’s “Certificate of Need,” a critical step toward beginning the project in spring 2018. The most extensive renovation in Maine Med’s history is scheduled to be completed by 2022, but first it must go through the city’s approval process, which includes allowing the zoning change.

An overlay zone gives city planners and an institution – such as a hospital or a university – a design blueprint covering the surrounding area so future development meshes with the neighborhood, said Jeff Levine, Portland’s planning and urban development director.

“This gives us a chance to create an overall plan that fits in with the neighborhood, and not just go one building at a time,” Levine said.

EFFECTS ON FUTURE DEVELOPMENT

A map released in advance of Monday’s meeting shows future sites eyed by the hospital for potential long-term developments between Vaughan and Chadwick streets, Congress and A streets and Forest and Gilman streets. The map was included in Maine Med’s institutional development plan, a guidebook for how the overlay zone would work that is prepared by the city and the hospital.

Zack Barowitz, representing the Libbytown Neighborhood Association, said he’s concerned that the overlay zone would give Maine Med preferential treatment for future development, and could potentially dissuade other developers.

“It’s like leaving a seat open in a crowded movie theater for a date that may or may not show up,” Barowitz said.

He said other developers might shy away from proposing projects, such as retail or housing, perceiving the overlay zone as a “sweetheart deal” between Maine Med and the city.

But Levine said the overlay zone would not preclude other businesses from locating in those areas, as long as they comply with existing zoning requirements.

John Porter, spokesman for MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Med, said the City Council vote simply means that if Maine Med were to build in those areas, it would have to follow the 144-page institutional development plan, which includes design guidelines and building height restrictions and even regulates how the buildings would affect shadows and wind.

“We don’t own or control those properties,” Porter said. “There’s no restrictions in place for others to come in and develop those properties.”

PLAN GIVES HOSPITAL FLEXIBILITY

Porter said Maine Med has identified several parcels for potential long-term development. Maine Med, for example, might want to include outpatient services near the hospital for the convenience of patients who need to go back and forth between the two facilities. But it’s unlikely the hospital would develop all or even most of the properties identified in the plan, Porter said. The selection gives the hospital flexibility in case some building owners don’t want to sell to the hospital, he said.

Barowitz, with the Libbytown group, said another concern is that Maine Med might buy up popular restaurants and replace them with sterile medical office buildings.

But Levine said the overlay zone strongly encourages Maine Med to reserve the first floors of future medical office buildings for retail or other “active uses.”

“We didn’t want to require retail on the first floor because we don’t know what the market is going to be long-term in those areas,” Levine said. “But we don’t want pedestrians walking past large blank walls.”

Porter noted that in response to neighborhood concerns, Maine Med did revise its parking plans and is now proposing a 10-story garage at 222 St. John St., about a quarter mile from the hospital. The new garage, with about 2,000 spaces, would be on property that the hospital already leases for surface parking for employees.

The existing parking garage on the Maine Med campus will be demolished. The original plan for a 13-story garage at Congress and Gilman streets was dropped after neighbors complained it would be too tall for the neighborhood.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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